More women in Queensland are being imprisoned for breaching domestic violence orders, sometimes with serious assaults. But if a significant proportion are victims themselves, as experts say, where are things going so wrong?
It wasn’t until she was walking into the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre last year, hands in cuffs, that Annie* fully realised the seriousness of the situation she was in.
The events of the past week — images of the knife, the blood, so much blood — came flooding back as a prison officer instructed her to turn to the left, then back to the front, snapping her mugshot with two quick clicks.
“I thought, what the hell am I doing here?” she told ABC News, six months after she was arrested and charged for breaching a domestic violence protection order by stabbing her partner.
What police had failed to recognise, though, was that Annie had been a victim of unrelenting abuse at the hands of her partner David* for several years. During the time they were together before she attacked him — a crime for which she was charged and released on bail after spending several months in custody — she called police for help with his sexual and physical violence 19 times.
Somewhere along the way, she said, she came to believe that no-one was going to take her complaints seriously, make him stop.
Family and domestic violence support services:
Her experience, experts say, is part of a disturbing trend of female victims of domestic violence ending up in prison after contravening protection orders made against them.
New data obtained exclusively by ABC News shows the number of female defendants in Queensland who have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for breaching an order has more than doubled in the past five years, fuelling an alarming increase in the number of women behind bars, and raising complex questions about how the law treats women who respond to men’s abuse with violence of their own.
Some women victims with DVOs against them in Queensland — at least six between 2011 and 2016 — have also been killed by their partner or committed suicide. And, as the state urgently seeks solutions to the population explosion, Aboriginal women are bearing the brunt of it.
For Annie, it had all unravelled so quickly. A softly-spoken woman with a stylish haircut and, when we meet in Southport one overcast afternoon, meticulously-applied makeup, Annie had met David a few years earlier on a dating website.
She was still recovering from the break-up of her previous marriage, but David was sweet and charming and she was tired of being on her own. Not long after they got together, she moved into his handsome home on the Gold Coast.
But domestic bliss it was not: David was jealous and controlling almost from the beginning, Annie said, and hated her having anything to do with other men. He’d regularly trawl through her phone, hunting for “evidence” of the affairs he accused her of having, and tore pages out of her address book to stop her from calling male friends.
He drank heavily most days, which she said made him angrier and more prone to sudden outbursts. Annie learned to tip-toe around him, to withdraw and submit — anything to avoid being called a “f***ing c**t”, shoved against a wall or smothered with a cushion in one of his rages.
She called police on several occasions; one time, after David had pushed her over, they eventually took out a protection order against him, requiring him to be of good behaviour and not commit domestic violence. But despite the odd bunch of flowers and moments of peace, his abuse only escalated, and soon he was demanding sex every evening.
It was easier, Annie said, to put up with it and “get it over with” than tell him no and start an argument.
She drank heavily, too, to numb the emotional pain, to mourn the loss of her confidence and self-worth. She also struggled with suicidal thoughts. “I couldn’t move out because I had nowhere else to go,” she said. “I felt like my options were to just take it, to be submissive all the time, or kill myself.”
‘It was his turn to feel the pain’
One night Annie took a kitchen knife to bed with her, and slid it under her pillow, feeling afraid of what David might do next. After she thought he had passed out next to her, she got up and, clutching the blade, walked around to his side of the room.
She can’t explain exactly why she briefly stood over him; she just wanted to feel some sense of control, she said, to imagine feeling as powerful as he must — to think that she could hurt him if she wanted. And then he opened his eyes.
“He wasn’t supposed to wake up,” she said. “I was never going to do anything … but he got up, and we struggled, and he grabbed the knife and it cut his hand.”
David was straight on the phone to police, claiming Annie had tried to kill him — she had, after all, been standing over him with a knife. His domestic violence order had expired, he was nursing a bloody injury, and Annie was unable to persuade the officers who attended that she hadn’t deliberately done it.
They took out another protection order, she said, this time naming her as the respondent.
Annie was devastated: for years the man she longed to trust, and be trusted by, had tormented and abused her and left her cowering in corners in fear. How could it be that, all of a sudden, she was the perpetrator?
Their relationship, by this point, was badly fractured, and things were tense. Still, there were calm days, Annie said, and on one “reasonably good day” last year, they sat outside at home, sharing a few drinks.
Having gone inside for a few minutes, Annie returned to find David scrolling through her phone: he was furious, she said, because he’d found messages from a male friend, whom she’d organised to meet. “And he just lost it.”
David stood up, walked quickly around the table and, without warning, knocked over Annie’s chair, causing her to fall backwards and hit her head on the concrete. Laying on her back, she said, winded and in shock: “I just saw red. In that situation you cannot think in a normal, constructive manner … your mind won’t let you. It just exploded … I had to get release somehow.”
But, she said, “I wasn’t entitled to do what I did”.
It was as if she was on autopilot: Annie grabbed a carving knife from the kitchen inside, rushed up behind David and, not even thinking about where it might fall, stabbed him in the back.
“And then all I could see was his blood everywhere … and I just froze, I didn’t know what to do.”
David screamed loudly when Annie stabbed him, she said, and went on to spend a few days in hospital recovering.
“But after all that build-up … after everything he had done to me, it was my way of saying, I have had enough, I guess … I think I thought afterwards that it was his turn to feel the pain.”
In Queensland, a peculiar problem
Over the past few years, Queensland, like other states, has been cracking down on domestic violence, a pervasive but significantly underreported pattern of abuse most commonly perpetrated by men against women.
As a result, there has been a huge increase in the number of domestic violence protection orders issued and breached and, as penalties for breaching an order have been toughened, an increase in the number of people in prison.
The system is designed to send a clear message to perpetrators that violence will not be tolerated and ultimately prevent serious crimes, including murder: if you breach a civil protection order, if you continue abusing your partner, you could face criminal charges and end up behind bars.
Often it’s an effective tool: a substantial number of orders made, 77 per cent of which protect a female aggrieved, aren’t reported as being breached, and research has shown they can lead to a reduction in some types of violence.
For some, however — particularly women — domestic violence protection orders can be their undoing.
An ABC News investigation — part of a series exploring how domestic violence is contributing to Australia’s soaring female prison population — has found rising concerns that a system ostensibly devised to protect victims is increasingly being weaponised by male abusers, and bungled by police, with troubling outcomes.
In practice, experts say, this is resulting in a growing number of women in Queensland being inappropriately named as respondents on protection orders — and being incarcerated for contravening them, frequently for minor infractions in self-defence or retaliation against men’s attacks.
And the impacts, particularly on Aboriginal women living in the state’s north, have been acute. According to evidence heard by the Anti-Discrimination Commission, which recently conducted a review of the treatment of women in Queensland’s prisons, over the past two years there have been “large increases” in women remanded in custody for DVO breaches and related offences, with many women behind bars for breaching orders there for their first offence.
Queensland, it seems, has a peculiar problem with DVO breaches: the ABS’s most recent snapshot of prisoners in Australia showed more than half — 51 per cent — of those sentenced for breaching an order nationally were serving time in the Sunshine State.
Now, new data obtained exclusively by ABC News reveals that, over the past five years, the proportion of women being named as respondents on protection orders in Queensland has increased — from 20.81 per cent of all orders made in 2014 to 22.36 per cent in 2018.
The proportion of women convicted of breaching an order has also grown over the same period: up from 13 per cent to 15 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of female defendants sentenced to a term of imprisonment for breaching an order has more than doubled, up from 162 in 2014 to 353 in 2018.
Across the board, the Queensland Wide Inter-linked Courts data show men are more likely to be named as respondents on orders; men also commit a greater volume of breaches than women, and are more likely to receive a custodial sentence as a result.
However, Aboriginal people are massively over-represented at every level of the protection order process. For example, though they make up less than four per cent of the state’s broader female population, Indigenous women were named as the respondent on more than 20 per cent of orders against women in 2018.
Aboriginal women also committed a third of DVO breaches by women, and of all female defendants sentenced to a term of imprisonment for that offence, almost half — 44 per cent — were Aboriginal.
‘When women breach, they throw the book at them’
On the surface, these trends appear to support the findings of some researchers that women can be just as aggressive and abusive as men, and are becoming increasingly so.
But according to lawyers and advocates working with female perpetrators, the statistics mask a complicated problem: while some women named as respondents on orders are violent, a significant proportion are the primary victim of abuse in their relationship.
Yet police, who lodge the bulk of DVO applications, and courts, which make final orders, too often fail to identify this dynamic.
“This is a serious and urgent issue,” said Angela Lynch, chief executive of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland.
“The consequences for women are huge … it affects their trust in the system to believe them, and keep them safe, and can prevent them going to police for help in the future. Some women are with … very manipulative perpetrators, they’re very dangerous, so when the system essentially backs the perpetrator, this can put the woman in more danger.”
This is not a hypothetical risk: of the cases reviewed by the Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board in 2017, at least six women who had been named at some stage as respondents on protection orders, despite having experienced sometimes brutal, sustained violence themselves, were either killed by their intimate partner or took their own life.
(Of course, it is far more common for women who were supposed to be protected by domestic violence orders to be killed: in almost half of intimate partner homicides reviewed, a protection order was in place at the time of death.)
Experts are currently debating myriad reasons for the increase in DVOs against women. Some believe police, who spruik a “zero tolerance” policy on domestic abuse, are tougher on violent women.
One Brisbane-based court support worker, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, said: “Police won’t admit to this, but … I’ve noticed a general leniency towards men who breach orders, but when women breach, they throw the book at them.”
Julie Sarkozi, a senior solicitor at the Women’s Legal Service who worked for five years as a duty lawyer supporting female DVO respondents in Brisbane, said some of her clients have reported egregious harassment and abuse by their partners to police, only to be told it wasn’t serious enough to take action against.
“But if a woman has an order against her, and she rings [her partner] in the middle of the night? Bam, the police will breach her … because he has reported it.”
So what’s going on? And why are Aboriginal women, who are 32 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalised for family violence-related assaults, so over-represented? Is the system really criminalising women who should instead be supported as victims, as advocates say? Or is this trend simply a reflection of the belief that, as some commentators have argued, women are becoming more violent?
At the heart of the problem, experts say, is the failure of police and courts to recognise not just some abusers’ “calculated manipulation” of the system, but the hugely complex, gendered nature of domestic violence itself and, importantly, coercive control.
Sometimes referred to as “intimate terrorism”, coercive control is not a single incident, a sudden loss of temper or random physical attack, but a pattern of behaviour — tactics — used by mostly male perpetrators to maintain a sense of dominance over their victim, keeping her in a constant state of fear.
“I think the system really struggles to see that men could be so cruel and manipulative because many of them have such beautiful image management,” said Karen D, a co-facilitator of Turning Points, a Gold Coast-based behaviour change program for female perpetrators of violence, most of whom have been named as respondents on or breached DVOs. (Turning Points staff asked the ABC not to use their full names for safety reasons.)
“Working with these women we get a real sense of the abuse they have suffered in their lives — the control, the [physical] violence, the sexual abuse. But when police attend a domestic violence incident, they only see a snippet … they don’t see the context of the relationship, the backstory.”
But what if it’s also about the way the law, and those who administer it, treat women — particularly Aboriginal women — who use violence? What happens when, after years of being boxed into a corner, belittled and besmirched, a strong and angry woman fights back?
When police misjudge who’s most in need of protection
When police arrive at a domestic violence incident, they’re supposed to separate the couple in order to speak with each person individually. This can also help them identify patterns of coercive controlling behaviour commonly used by the primary perpetrator.
But too often, experts say, in the chaos of the scene or because they’re short on time, they take an “incident-based” approach. This can result in, for example, a woman who injured her partner in response to his violence being identified as the aggressor.
“What I found again and again [working as a duty lawyer] is that either the incident that triggered the [DVO] being taken out against the woman was self-defence, or it came after a long history of [abusive] behaviour by her partner,” Ms Sarkozi said. “The other party had worn my client down to the point where there was an explosion … which then caused the police to be called.”
Then, when officers turn up, she added, “she’s crying, she’s really upset, and she immediately admits to [doing whatever she did]: ‘Yes, I did throw the vase at him’, or ‘I did upend the table’ or ‘I did call him a [slur]’.”
Once she has confessed to that behaviour, though — which advocates across the state say is a remarkably common response — police will typically clock it as an act of domestic violence and, having not investigated further, or perhaps because she’s distraught and unable to communicate what happened, or because she doesn’t speak English, name her as a respondent on their protection order application.
Sometimes, officers will name both parties as aggressors, rather than risk getting it wrong.
For a woman who is actually the victim, this can be disastrous.
In one recent case, police made an application against a young woman after her boyfriend, who had scratch marks all over him, claimed she had attacked him.
“But the woman said she had done that [to fight him off] because he was sexually assaulting her,” Ms Sarkozi said. “It so happened that this guy had also been strangling our client, who became so unwell she later collapsed at an intersection.”
In that case, Ms Sarkozi said, police ended up withdrawing the order against her because their subsequent investigations uncovered evidence of the assault on the boyfriend’s phone: “But it shows you how seriously they can get it wrong.”
Still, police rarely withdraw applications and, because of their authority and evidence gathered at the scene, courts tend to make them. Even if a woman’s solicitor, if she can afford one, presents a compelling case that the woman has been misidentified as the respondent, Ms Sarkozi said, “98 per cent of the time” police refuse to withdraw their application.
And at that point, Ms Lynch said, many women will simply consent to the order because they don’t have the time, resources or emotional energy to defend it through what can be a stressful and protracted process.
“Women may have been a victim of domestic violence and they’ve suddenly been pulled up in front of the court as a perpetrator: many are just so ashamed and embarrassed … so they consent [to the order] to get it out of the way,” she said.
“They can also feel completely defeated; [they’ll think], ‘He always says he will destroy me, control me, and this is another way he has succeeded in doing that’.”
For some abusers, police and courts are weapons
Once an order is made, however, it can quickly trigger a domino-effect of increasingly serious legal scenarios if breached. And, especially if the woman’s partner continues abusing her, breaching is easy.
In Queensland, the standard condition of protection orders requires the respondent to be of good behaviour and not commit domestic violence. But other conditions can be added requiring that a person not have any contact with the aggrieved, say, or go within a certain distance of them or a home they share.
Unsurprisingly, no-contact conditions can be a nightmare, and women (and men) will often breach them, sometimes accidentally, by accessing their home to retrieve personal belongings, or texting their partner about the kids.
ABC News has interviewed several women around the country who have been charged and incarcerated for breaching no-contact DVOs in response to their partner’s violence: one woman in New South Wales said she left a tearful voicemail on her ex-husband’s phone one night in which she demanded to know why he’d beaten up their son. He immediately reported her call to police, who arrived at her house not long after to arrest her.
Even the standard condition can be a minefield. “Often the parties continue to live with each other and try and move forward with their relationship,” Ms Sarkozi said. “And in my experience … if you don’t do something [to address] the underlying issues, it is just going to happen again.”
Still, women’s breaches are not always so clear-cut. Experts in Queensland and other states are increasingly concerned about the emerging trend of men manipulating the DVO system as an extension of their abuse and control, or to gain an advantage in Family Court proceedings.
They have observed many abusers, for instance, goad or trick women into breaching orders, use them as bargaining chips for sex, access to money or contact with children, then report them to police.
“Quite often if a perpetrator of violence has been named as a respondent on a DVO with a previous partner,” said Karen D, “he is very clued-up for the next one on how to use the system.”
This “systems abuse” can begin early: for example, with the perpetrator calling police first to improve his chances of being treated as the victim, or out of spite. “These are perpetrators of violence,” Ms Lynch said, “So they will use any means they can — including the legal system and the police — to continue to exert power and control.”
Importantly, the ways women and men commonly breach DVOs may differ markedly: while women tend to commit more “technical” breaches, lawyers and experts working with perpetrators say men are more likely to contravene orders by physically attacking their partner, or as part of a campaign of coercive control.
“Men’s breaches seem to be more serious in the sense that they can involve obsessive behaviour such as stalking, [physical] violence, intimidation and threats,” said Bill Potts, president of the Queensland Law Society.
“I’m not saying that never happens with women but in my experience the … menace of men’s breaches is [more] significant compared to what could be regarded as prosaic or minor … breaches” typical of women.
Male v female violence: Is there a difference?
On the Gold Coast, many of the men participating in behaviour change programs at the Domestic Violence Prevention Centre (DVPC) have been referred by courts, and many are also listed as respondents on protection orders.
“Participants in our men’s program are generally supervised by Probation and Parole for breaches and violence against their partners,” said Rosemary O’Malley, the chief executive of DVPC, which services a huge geographic area and works with thousands of clients every year.
This, she said, can include everything from not complying with no-contact conditions to sadistic acts of violence and torture: strangulation, putting out lit cigarettes on a woman’s chest, throwing her out of a second-storey window, driving a woman to a remote area and forcing her to dig her own grave and, in extreme cases, murder.
“We don’t see that level of violence documented for women attending Turning Points [DVPC’s program for female perpetrators],” Ms O’Malley said.
Of course, some women breach orders using serious violence. But again and again, experts report that, although women can instigate fights, and act as aggressively as men, the difference between their use of violence and men’s is fear.
“Power and control is linked to the intention to cause fear, to make that person fear for their life,” said Joanne K, a co-facilitator of Turning Points. “Women can be controlling, but … women [generally] don’t use forms of power and control so that men are in fear for their lives day-in and day-out.”
This is reflected in the findings of numerous studies.
In one review of research on women’s violence against male partners in the United States, researchers from the University of South Carolina found women’s violence usually occurs in response to or retaliation against violence by their partner: their use of physical violence is more likely to be motivated by self-defence and fear, while men’s is more likely to be fuelled by their desire for control.
It also found that, in general, women and men perpetrate “equivalent levels of physical and psychological aggression” but that men more frequently commit sexual abuse, coercive control and stalking.
Even in relationships in which both men and women have used violence, they found men can cause more harm. Women, the authors concluded, “are more likely than men to experience severe and coercive forms of partner violence … and women are injured more often and more severely.”
Similar patterns have been identified in Australia. An analysis of 152 adult domestic abuse-related homicides in Australia between July 2010 and June 2014 revealed that four out of five cases were of men killing their female partner, while a little less than one in five were women who murdered a male partner (the rest were perpetrated by men against men).
Crucially, the report, published last year by the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network, highlights one striking difference: more than nine in 10 men who murdered women were the primary abuser in their relationship, compared with fewer than one in 10 women who killed male intimates. One in four women who killed their male partner had a current DVO against him.
In other words, female victims of abuse are far more likely to be killed by a male partner — the most extreme form of violence. Women who murder a male partner are also more likely to have been identified as a victim in the relationship, and have sought a court order to protect themselves, not that doing so is necessarily effective.
‘There was nobody standing up for me’
Why, then, if the stakes are so high, are so many women falling through the cracks? Some experts suggest stereotypes of how women should behave can influence their treatment by police and courts.
“I think the expectation is that women [in abusive relationships] will be crumpling in the corner, being fearful, crying — a bit of a mess,” said Heather Douglas, a law professor at the University of Queensland.
“And yet what a lot of women say is that when police arrive [at domestic violence callouts], they’re furious, angry and … very strong. Yes, the women may have been harmed [by their partner] for years, but in the end some are very angry … and they don’t want to see themselves as a victim, they want to be a strong survivor.”
This display of defiance, Professor Douglas said, can “undercut” the role of police, and alter their perception of what has occurred between the couple.
Still, domestic violence matters can be very difficult for police, she added, “because they don’t want to be responsible for not taking action, for not getting a protection order where one might have been needed.”
On the flipside, many survivors claim an inconsistent approach by police. Queensland’s landmark report on domestic violence, Not Now, Not Ever, heard evidence of “extremely unhelpful and traumatising responses” from police, including a failure by some officers to take women’s reports of abuse seriously (similar arguments have been made by advocates for male victims, who may be deterred from reporting abuse as a result of stigma and shame).
The 2015 inquiry made eight recommendations for police urging, among other reforms, better training and cultural change. And it appears to have given police in Queensland, as in other states, a new determination to stamp out domestic violence.
Frontline workers say they have seen noticeable improvements as a result, including that police are more prepared to prosecute DVO breaches, despite their spiralling workload and what one senior officer described to ABC News on background as “DV fatigue”.
A Queensland Police Service spokesperson told ABC News in a statement that, “responding to and preventing domestic and family violence is a priority” for the force, with officers attending roughly 246 incidents a day.
“Police will investigate all incidents without prejudice,” they said. There are a number of initiatives in place to usher out old or unhelpful attitudes, including training, education and professional development opportunities for members “to support continuous improvement and to build strong leadership” in the area of domestic violence.
Anyone who has a complaint about police handling of domestic violence matters, the spokesperson added, is encouraged to lodge a formal report with the Ethical Standards Command or Crime and Corruption Commission so the allegations can be investigated.
But new research by Professor Douglas, based on in-depth interviews with 65 women in Brisbane who had experienced domestic violence, suggests some problems remain unaddressed.
While some participants reported positive dealings with police, the study found, others had negative encounters, including officers appearing to align themselves with male abusers, implying women were to blame for their partner’s abuse, and suggesting women were “idiots” for staying.
This was also the case for Annie. In one particularly bad experience last year, she said, she called police for assistance after David began shouting and throwing things at her in one of his drunken rages.
One of the officers who came to her house, she said, had responded to her calls previously but didn’t seem to believe her accounts. “And he threatened me, basically. He said, ‘If you don’t stop wasting our time you’ll end up in jail’.”
Annie felt completely abandoned, she said, and told them: “Well, I might as well just kill myself now, then — and they had to take that seriously.”
As a result, she said, the officers took her to the hospital for a mental health assessment. What upset her more, though, was how “chummy” she thought they were with David.
“I couldn’t understand why they were so calm and nice … They were joking with him, after being called out for a domestic violence incident! I think their strategy would be to not make the situation more volatile … but straight away they were on his side, there was nobody standing up for me.”
‘I gave as much as he tried to give’
Hundreds of kilometres north of the Gold Coast, these issues are taking a particular toll on Aboriginal women, many of whom live in remote communities between Mount Isa, in the state’s west, and Townsville, a coastal hub swarming with military recruits and mine workers on fly-in-fly-out contracts.
The new Queensland courts data obtained by the ABC show Aboriginal women, who are over-represented on DVOs as both the respondent and the aggrieved, are also more likely than non-Indigenous women to be found guilty of breaching an order, and are more likely to be imprisoned as a result. (Interestingly, the proportion of Aboriginal women sentenced to a term of imprisonment for this offence has been declining since 2014.)
In addition, police data show that in 2018, Mount Isa recorded the highest rate of DVO breaches in the state, with 2,092 breaches per 100,000 people. This was double the rate of Townsville, which recorded the second-highest breach rate in Queensland.
Similar trends were identified in a study published last year by Professor Douglas and her University of Queensland colleague Robin Fitzgerald. Their analysis of courts data from 2013-14 showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were over-represented at every stage of the DVO system, including, crucially, with police.
While police lodged applications for the majority — 79 per cent — of protection orders, this figure was much higher for Aboriginal respondents (90 per cent) and slightly higher for Aboriginal female respondents (90.3 per cent). “That opens up the possibility that many of those orders perhaps weren’t wanted by the parties involved,” Professor Douglas said.
Further, 69 per cent of women imprisoned for contravening a DVO were Aboriginal. While previous contact with the criminal justice system may partly explain their over-representation, she said, it was “so shocking that we think there is something more going on … there is a much bigger story here.”
According to lawyers and prison support workers, the “bigger story” is a complex tangle of issues that can be traced back to colonisation, and the cycles of disadvantage and violence it continues to fuel in Indigenous communities.
Thelma Schwartz, principal legal officer at the Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service (QIFVLS), said police often apply for DVOs against Aboriginal women that can be difficult to comply with.
“The conditions on some orders” — for example, barring a woman from having contact with her partner — “are setting many women up to fail,” Ms Schwartz said. Many Indigenous communities in Queensland are very isolated, which means contact with an abusive partner is sometimes unavoidable.
“There is also a lack of shelters for women [fleeing violence] in rural locations … So if women are forced out of their home as part of a [DVO], where are they going to go?”
Orders are also taken out against — and breached by — Aboriginal women who have fought back. Some research has suggested Aboriginal women are more likely than non-Indigenous women to retaliate against a violent partner, which may increase their likelihood of being named as a respondent on an order, or being charged for breaching one.
But this has been linked to many women’s reluctance to report violence or seek help as victims: Some fear retribution from their partner or his family, while many have a deep distrust of police that began generations before them. Others hold legitimate fears that reporting abuse will result in them being arrested or their children being removed.
“This intergenerational trauma is very complex and very difficult to unpack,” Ms Schwartz said. “Many of the women we work with have experienced sexual or other physical abuse as children … And when you start peeling back those layers it’s almost as if there’s an acceptance of this violence as normal. For some women, that [violence and chaos] is all they’ve ever known.”
As one recent study of Aboriginal mothers incarcerated in Western Australia found, some women connect their childhood experiences of abuse to their use of resistant violence in adult relationships.
One participant, ‘Leonie’, said she would fight back against her partner because she’d “been getting flogged all [her] life” by her father, who also beat her mother. “There was no way I was going to stand back and let a man flog me,” she said, “so I gave as much as he tried to give.”
A different policing approach up north?
Debbie Kilroy, the chief executive of Sisters Inside, believes the growing number of Aboriginal women being held in Townsville Women’s Correctional Centre for breaching DVOs and related offences is not reflective of an increase in violence among women, but a change in “police attitudes and behaviour”.
“Police are specifically targeting Aboriginal communities in North Queensland,” she said, “and responding to domestic violence situations by [applying for protection] orders against both the woman and her abusive partner, even in cases where it is clear the woman has used violence to defend herself against horrific abuse.”
This has also been the experience of QIFVLS staff up north, Ms Schwartz said, who report officers rarely conduct “proper investigations” into domestic violence matters.
“If the police know they can technically prove an act of domestic violence [was perpetrated by] the woman,” staff in the North Queensland office said, “they will file a DVO application” — even if there’s evidence she acted in self-defence.
(QPS did not specifically respond to questions about its handling of domestic abuse in Indigenous communities but said the force was “committed to addressing … family violence in regional communities” and, among other initiatives, had introduced high-risk teams in various locations to do so.)
A couple of years ago, Ms Kilroy said, she defended a young Aboriginal woman who had been seriously assaulted by her long-term partner on several occasions, including one incident where he was convicted and imprisoned for stabbing and blinding her in one eye.
Months later, Ms Kilroy said, “The woman was sleeping on a lounge chair in her home, and her partner woke her up by shaking her violently and hitting her around the head.” He chased her down the street, she said, and was beating her up when the woman noticed a small knife on the road: “She picked it up and stabbed him with it, causing him minor injuries.”
She was charged with grievous bodily harm — despite witnesses saying they had seen the man attacking her — and breaching a DVO, which Ms Kilroy said had been made despite police being “fully aware” of his previous assaults on her, and held on remand in prison in Townsville.
The first lawyer she was assigned, Ms Kilroy said, simply “asked the woman, ‘Did you stab [him]?’ To which she replied ‘yes’ and nodded … and she was told to plead guilty.”
But when Sisters Inside took over the case, she said, they spoke in detail with the woman about what had happened, and about her partner’s history of violence, and changed her plea to ‘not guilty’.
“We went to trial … and she was found not guilty by a jury,” Ms Kilroy said. “But some lawyers — they’re usually white men — see it as being easier to plead them out, plead them guilty. So the stats seem to suggest women are becoming more violent but [in many cases] it’s because they’re [being poorly advised and] pleading guilty.”
‘One death is too many’: Action is urgently needed
Untangling some of these issues will require a substantial overhaul of family violence programs in Indigenous communities, experts say — to help Aboriginal families address their behaviour and heal their trauma before they come to the attention of cops and courts.
“Given the growing rates of imprisonment, especially of Aboriginal women, action is urgently needed,” Ms Schwartz said. “The current system is not working … and the linkages to other problems” — for example the alarming number of kids in Queensland watch houses, many of whom have parents in custody — “are clear”.
“We need to look at investing in programs that interrupt those cycles,” said Ms Schwartz, who would also like to see an expansion of bail-based programs that direct women to behaviour change groups, which are rare.
Crucially, she added, “Communities need to be empowered to [design and] lead these changes themselves, they must be involved from the start.”
However, Debbie Kilroy believes the problems need to be tackled even more radically, and earlier in the piece. For that reason, she said, Sisters Inside is advocating for “truly gendered” domestic violence legislation that requires police to assume “the male party is the perpetrator of violence, in the absence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary”.
“It is important that we return to the original intent of domestic violence legislation,” Sisters Inside recently told the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into imprisonment and recidivism, “that is, to primarily protect women and children”.
But Queensland’s Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, Di Farmer, has dismissed the idea. While “the vast majority of perpetrators are men,” Ms Farmer told ABC News, “Our laws do not make presumptions on the basis of gender because not all perpetrators are men and not all victims are women.”
And police would argue that’s exactly how they are trained: to approach domestic abuse as the Act currently defines it: as an issue that can affect anyone, but which disproportionately impacts women, and Aboriginal people, among other vulnerable groups.
“Of course there are men who are abused by women and [police] shouldn’t exclude that possibility,” Professor Douglas said. “But if they are well-trained in terms of the statistics — the fact that women are much more likely to be harmed as a result of domestic violence, especially physical and sexual violence — they would go [to callouts] with that understanding.”
Education, then, is key. To that end, the Women’s Legal Service says the new Vulnerable Persons Units set up in a handful of police districts to better assist victims and perpetrators are having a positive impact.
But, Julie Sarkozi said, “There needs to be a lot more energy put into comprehensive training for … police, so that when they’re turning up [at callouts] … they’re asking broader questions to obtain a bigger picture of the dynamics of the relationship. That requires more resourcing, training, nuanced policing.”
Bill Potts strongly believes police need to be able to exercise greater discretion at callouts: in many situations, he said, protection orders are “too blunt an instrument” to effectively address the complex causes of violence, and can actually inflame tensions.
And because the system is “crushing” police and clogging courts, he added, perpetrators aren’t getting timely support for the factors fuelling their abuse: mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems, financial stress.
“We are not taking a whole-of-community approach to domestic violence and we need to,” Mr Potts said. “Because one death is too many but the actual causes of violence can’t be properly addressed by police [alone] or a cumbersome court process. We actually need to [invest in] community-based responses because we know they work.”
Making a ‘bigger deal’ of women hitting men
So why aren’t we talking more about women who use violence, particularly given there’s arguably never been a brighter spotlight on domestic abuse?
On the other side of the globe, conversations about how violent women are treated in the criminal justice system seem to be decades ahead of discussions in Australia. In the United States, there is a growing body of research dedicated to exploring the abuse-to-prison pipeline, and sustained campaigns for reform to allow courts to take victims’ experiences into consideration.
The recent #MeToo movement has also been credited with expanding public understanding not just of sexual harassment and abuse, but the criminalisation of survivors.
Almost three decades after Lorena Bobbit was arrested for cutting off her husband’s penis as he slept one night, her behaviour is now being seen in new light.
Back then, Ms Bobbit was framed as a “crazy white lady” who attacked her lover in a “fit of vengeance”. Now, a more complex story is emerging about a young woman who, after enduring years of domestic violence and rape by an abusive and controlling man, “finally snapped“.
“The conversation [here] is more, ‘Ah ha, see? Women are violent, too’,” Ms Kilroy said. “It’s easy to say in a [sound bite], ‘Women are becoming more violent’ than to break it down and try and understand what’s actually going on in women’s lives behind the scenes.”
Experts argue that expanding the conversation about women’s violence shouldn’t mean criminal behaviour is excused, or that male survivors are ignored. Talking more openly about women’s abuse, for instance, could make it easier for male victims to seek help, by reducing stigma. It may also shed more light on the dynamics of men’s aggression and violence.
“Because women’s violence is often retaliatory or committed in self-defence,” wrote Michael Kimmel, a distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University, examining it “may help to expose some of the ways men use violence to control women and women’s perceived lack of options except ‘fighting back’.”
And as the American professor of sociology Murray A. Straus argued in 1997, acknowledging even “minor” assaults by women is important because, “they put women in danger of much more severe retaliation by men”.
“When she slaps, she sets the stage for him to hit her,” Professor Strauss went on to say. “The safety of women alone demands we make a big deal of women hitting men.”
‘You’re labelled for the rest of your life’
How many women might avoid jail time if their violence was paid more careful attention? Would a more robust public discussion about women’s abuse have prevented Annie from stabbing David? It’s difficult to say.
As she nervously awaited a sentencing decision for her charges, she told ABC News she’d taken responsibility for her actions and “very much” regrets what happened that night.
But she’s also deeply angry about how she has been treated as a victim and wishes her attempts to seek help had been seen by police not as a “waste of time”, but a genuine plea for assistance from a woman who felt trapped and traumatised in her own home.
For example, instead of removing her from the house, as they did on many occasions, including to take her to the hospital because she was so distressed, Annie wishes they’d listened properly to her accounts, and been firmer with David. They could have recognised the difficulties she may have faced in reaching out to begin with.
“I didn’t realise how serious it had gotten, to be honest, how helpless I was. I was crying and putting my head under the doona, and [wishing it would] stop.” But by the time she’d stabbed him, she said, she’d lost faith that anyone else could help, that things would change.
“I think that’s why a lot of women [experiencing domestic abuse] have ended up being killed,” she said, “because strong enough action hasn’t been taken soon enough.”
Her brief stint behind bars before she was granted bail, she said, was a humiliating experience that “stripped any pride or strength or feeling of self-worth I had left. I think they do that purposely — you’re not actually seen as a person in jail … it was worse than anything that had been going on back home.”
It was also “quite a shock” for her to learn just how many women there were, like her, victims of sexual and domestic abuse.
Still, it was the first time in years she’d had space from David, Annie said, and a chance to reflect on their relationship. Sometimes, she felt as if she was rebuilding some of her lost self-esteem.
Now, she’s taking life “one day at a time”, and trying to enjoy her safety and freedom while she has it. She’s rented a little house for herself, and is seeing a psychiatrist and attending a behaviour change program for female perpetrators of violence.
But she remains anxious about the future, she said, how her criminal charges might alter the course of her life. “Even having to go to court was embarrassing because I felt my standing in the community [had been damaged],” she said.
“I’d been a good person … I’d never done anything wrong [before the incident]. But unfortunately when you’ve been to prison … I think you’re labelled, judged harshly, for the rest of your life.”
Couldn’t she label herself differently, though? How does she see herself? “Survivor,” she said, nodding slowly. “I’m a survivor.”
*Names have been changed for legal reasons.